It’s probably no secret that the search results for many topics on Google don’t give you the best results. Many topics are highjacked by high-paying ad buyers and companies with big budgets to write over-optimized SEO content at the expense of readability and user experience. The result is a frustration for the searcher. Google is aware of this and is trying to diversify the search results with a new Helpful Content Update.
What is going on?
If you’ve been following our industry for a while, you have noticed many articles popping up over the last couple of years describing the death of Google search. If you haven’t, read The Open Secret of Google Search in The Atlantic, or the Google Search is Dying post, which went viral earlier this year. You’ll quickly discover that some topics’ search results are unusable and unhelpful. This is not a good look for Google.
SEO companies and marketing agencies have pumped out over-optimized SEO content for years, spamming the search results with average to bad stuff, describing the same stuff over and over to please the search engine — not searchers.
Of course, optimizing your content isn’t a bad thing. We’ve been telling you to improve your content for years. But there’s a difference between optimized and over-optimized. There are people out there spending huge amounts of money to spit out mediocre content at scale just to try and game the system. Now, with the rise of AI writing tools, it is getting even easier to do this.
Investing in the future
Google has been investigating ways to make the search results better and more welcoming for new — and better — voices. They’ve been cranking out patents for proposed improvements to their algorithms, like the information gain patent that looks at what documents have in common to find something that stands out from the commonness.
Google also invested heavily in its understanding of language and the use of AI. With language models MUM and BERT, Google has excellent tools to uncover and understand the content that otherwise would be left by the side of the road. It should distinguish better between content written to manipulate the search results and high-quality, unique content written to please searchers.
Now, it’s time for Google to combine their insights and launch a new addition to their algorithms with the Helpful Content Update. Combined with the recent Product Review updates, this aims to bring expert content to the forefront. This update has the potential to really shake things up.
What is the Helpful Content Update?
The Helpful Content Update is part of a more significant project at Google aimed at getting more diversity in the search results. Google describes it as uncovering more original, helpful content for people, written by people. Google’s Danny Sullivan said, “our testing has found it will especially improve results related to online education, as well as arts and entertainment, shopping and tech-related content.”
Google aims to reward content that gives readers a satisfying experience and demotes content written only to please the search engines. For this, Google not only looks at the quality of a particular piece of content on your site to determine its value but also at what you do on the rest of your site.
“This update introduces a new site-wide signal that we consider among many other signals for ranking web pages. Our systems automatically identify content that seems to have little value, low-added value or is otherwise not particularly helpful to those doing searches,” Google says.
In addition, “Any content — not just unhelpful content — on sites determined to have relatively high amounts of unhelpful content overall is less likely to perform well in Search, assuming there is other content elsewhere from the web that’s better to display. For this reason, removing unhelpful content could help the rankings of your other content.”
What does this mean for you?
That depends! You might be in trouble if you’ve also been pumping out low-quality content to get high rankings. Our advice has always been to write high-quality, unique content that makes a difference for searchers, not search engines. Still, it will not be good enough if you’ve been writing what everybody else has been writing.
It’s going to be even more important to be unique and to write high-quality stuff. For some topics, E-A-T will increasingly have a voice in what expertise and trustworthiness means and how this will be viewed.
An important thing to note on this Helpful Content Update is that it is side-wide. This means that, even if you have a perfect cornerstone article for your main topic, low-quality content on other parts of your site may keep it from ranking highly. This might make it necessary to improve the rest of your site by upping the quality of your content or by removing low-quality stuff. Of course, your route depends on what you want to achieve.
Google shared a handy list of questions you can ask yourself to validate your strategy:
- Do you have an existing or intended audience for your business or site that would find the content useful if they came directly to you?
- Does your content clearly demonstrate first-hand expertise and a depth of knowledge (for example, expertise that comes from having actually used a product or service, or visiting a place)?
- Does your site have a primary purpose or focus?
- After reading your content, will someone leave feeling they’ve learned enough about a topic to help achieve their goal?
- Will someone reading your content leave feeling like they’ve had a satisfying experience?
- Are you keeping in mind our guidance for core updates and for product reviews?
How can you check and improve your content for this update?
What can you do to improve your content or make a balanced decision on deleting stuff? Google shared a helpful list of questions to ask yourself when looking at your content. Answering yes to any of these questions should be a red flag. You can find it in Google’s post on the Helpful Content Update, but we’ll share it below for posterity:
- Is the content primarily to attract people from search engines rather than made for humans?
- Are you producing lots of content on different topics in hopes that some of it might perform well in search results?
- Are you using extensive automation to produce content on many topics?
- Are you mainly summarizing what others have to say without adding much value?
- Are you writing about things simply because they seem to trend and not because you’d write about them otherwise for your existing audience?
- Does your content leave readers feeling like they need to search again to get better information from other sources?
- Are you writing to a particular word count because you’ve heard or read that Google has a preferred word count? (No, we don’t).
- Did you decide to enter some niche topic area without any real expertise, but instead mainly because you thought you’d get search traffic?
- Does your content promise to answer a question that actually has no answer, such as suggesting there’s a release date for a product, movie, or TV show when one isn’t confirmed?
The Helpful Content Update will roll out soon
Google announced that the Helpful Content Update will roll out for the English-speaking world starting next week. Google will keep us up to date on when its done rolling our the new update.
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